Why is Italy ranked among the worst at speaking English in Europe?

Why is Italy ranked among the worst at speaking English in Europe?
Why is Italy ranked worse than most European countries for English-language skills? Photo: AFP
After Italy once again ranked among the worst in the EU when it comes to speaking English, The Local asks why the country is struggling so much with English language skills.

Italy ranked among the worst in the EU for speaking English again in a report released on Thursday, well behind countries in northern Europe.

Even though Italy has climbed the annual ranking compared to last year – when it came bottom in the EU and 36th overall – Italy and Spain were the only two EU countries where English-language skills are classed as “moderate” rather than “high” or “very high”.

The study once again showed English test scores in southern Italian regions were worse than those in the north. But the entire country scored relatively poorly overall, with even its two biggest cities performing worse than any other EU city included in the index.

An extract from Education's First's 2020 English Proficiency Index.

While many people who come to Italy on holiday encounter competent English speakers in tourist areas, those who live elsewhere in the country often say English language skills in their area tend to be poor.

A lack of qualified English teachers is often blamed for a lower level of attainment among students – and some of Italy's teachers told The Local they agree.

“I didn't study English at school or at university, so I was surprised when I was expected to teach it,” says Lucia, an elementary school teacher whose subjects have included English for the past three years – despite the fact she can't actually speak the language.

READ ALSO: Ten English words that make you sound cool in Italian

“I have to study the grammar before every class,” she tells The Local, in Italian. “We had an American boy in one class, who was always correcting my pronunciation.”

Lucia, speaking to us on the condition of anonymity, teaches at an elementary school near Bari in the southern region of Puglia, which ranked as the Italian region with the second-worst level of English, after neighbouring Basilicata.

Is the Italian education system to blame?

39-year-old Lucia says she only had the option to study French when she was at school.

“Most teachers here unfortunately don't speak English, because we didn't study it,” she admits. “But  things have changed, now English is important for our childrens' futures.”

She points out that English-language skills are “now essential” for work, studies, and travel, and says “the earlier children start learning another language, the better.”

“But we need to break the chain. We need to get native English speakers teaching in our schools. Sadly, there are very few,” she adds.

READ ALSO: Italian teachers some of the least respected in the world

As well as a lack of madrelingue, or native speakers, teaching in Italian schools, many teachers, students and language experts pointed out that the way the language is taught also leaves students at a disadvantage.

“The Italian education system tends to focus on acquiring theoretical knowledge rather than the practical application of it. This is a problem for every subject, but it applies to languages particularly,” according to Fabiola Sibilla, an Italian blogger for language site The Polyglot's Corner.

“Italian students are obliged to memorise English grammar rules without practising and speaking the language,” he adds. “In this way, they tend to forget everything they memorise after finishing school.”

At private schools in Italy, teachers say the situation is very different.

Italian journalist and filmmaker Emilio Bellu says that, while there are other factors to consider, the Italian state education system in general is “broken”.

“I think the schooling system is the main culprit here, and the teaching of English is just one of the clearer ways it shows its inadequacies; the educational system in Italy is deeply broken, especially high school and universities,” he tells The Local.

Italian parents often rely on private schools or tutors to fill this gap in their childrens' education.

But this is not an affordable solution for many, and even those parents who can pay for private tuition say they've had difficulty finding accredited language schools or qualified teachers outside of Italy's bigger cities.

Lucia says she arranged private English lessons for her son with “an American woman who lives nearby” but it turned out that she “wasn't qualified and had never taught before so we stopped”.

READ ALSO: 

A lack of exposure

Another major obstacle is the fact that Italians just don't get many opportunities to speak English. or even to hear it spoken, says Sibilla.

“There are not many chances to speak English daily in Italy, because nobody speaks it on the street or at work,” he says. And even at schools or universities, “English lessons are often explained in Italian.”

The lack of exposure appears to contribute to a notable lack of confidence when speaking English, even among Italians who have studied English at school for years.

27-year-old nursing student Vito Angelillo told The Local, in Italian, that he got his B2 level English language certificate last year but rarely ever attempts a conversation in English.

“I don't think I can speak well,” he said. “I had to ask for things in English when I went to London on holiday, but it was horrible.”

Outside of heavily-touristed areas, the English language is just not part of everyday life in Italy.

You might expect highly-educated professionals, such as doctors, to speak at least some English, but here in Italy that's not always the case  particularly outside of big cities.

Worryingly, even highly-visible public figures struggle with English. Videos of ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's incomprehensible speeches in English regularly went viral when he was in office. The current foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, rarely attempts to speak English and is usually ridiculed when he does.

While in many other European countries young people regularly watch films and television series in English, Italians aren't easily able to do that either because dubbing is so prevelant.

READ ALSO:  Six Italian series worth watching beyond My Brilliant Friend

“In Italy dubbing, a legacy of fascism and of our dominant illiteracy in the first half of the last century, has a very strong tradition, and is used in practically every adaptation of foreign productions, from documentaries to television series,” explains Bellu.

But “watching movies and TV series with subtitles is a free, effective and fun language lesson,” he adds.

“Anyone who has travelled the world will have noticed how the linguistic competence of the population (especially the youngest) is linked to the amount of exposure they've had to a foreign language.”

This is an updated version of an article originally published in 2019.


Member comments

  1. And so what? Will the superpowers and political elite not be happy until every city speaks English and every town looks like each other with chain department stores, specialty stores, and restaurants, selling mediocre at best goods, most of it made in china and awlful factory-made foods? They preach diversity while flooding our countries with people who share nothing with us yet desire us to all accept their version of the future where we are all in lock-step with each other buying the same shit and speaking the same language! Sorry, that is not the future I want for my children.

  2. Practically, to not speak English today is to vastly limit one’s opportunities for growth and professional development. It’s good to be exposed to other cultures.

    No need for melodramatics.

  3. @Luigi

    You perfectly represent the average right-winger in Italy who has no clue about the world and thus causes the terrible economic and cultural state that country is in.

  4. This seems to be part of the negativity towards newcomers that I’ve experienced in Italy, especially in the south. I’ve studied Italian for almost 2 years now, but at age 65, it doesn’t come easily. So many Italians I’ve encountered have no patience for my imperfect Italian. When I ask them to speak more slowly, they won’t. I’ve had Italians hang up the phone on me because they can’t be bothered to try to understand my imperfect Italian. Maybe if Italians learned another language, any other language, they would have some clue about how difficult it is to actually have to speak another language. There is so much resistance to any kind of change in Italy, though, I don’t see it happening any time soon. The language issue, as part of the overall reluctance to change or even experience anything new, is part of the reason Italy is ranked as one of the worst countries in the world to move to.

  5. @Kai, sorry to disappoint; however, I speak English, lived in the US for 30 years, and have traveled all over the world with my business. Right-winger, hardly! Italy is dysfunctional beyond belief, and almost every Italian is part of the problem, from their voting for the same corrupt politicians election after election to individuals trashing the countryside and beaches with their trash. To defacing Italian towns with graffiti and accepting that as usual. The young and ultra-liberals think one homogenous society in lock-step with the US, and the rest of Europe will bring prosperity and social peace. Yes, let’s all speak English so in 50 or 100 years, Italian is no longer needed, let’s require shops to be open as they are in the US and other European cities all day, so the urge to spend money one does not have and live off of credit cards will become the norm. Let’s allow global chain stores to come into our cities and slowly wipe out the small local merchant, which has happened in almost every US town. From the east coast to the west coast of the US, each city looks alike and has the same stores and restaurants. The EU and superpowers intend to dilute the cultural differences that make Italians Italians, French French, etc. Once these differences are lost, they are gone forever, and we will be one vast consumer-driven world. Over exggerated, perhaps! English ability should be a choice, left up to the individual, and not dictated by the government.

  6. Luigi, while there is some truth in what you say about consumerism, your viewpoint is inconsistent. You condemn Italian culture by saying “Italy is dysfunctional beyond belief” and then go on to defend maintaining the status quo and to avoid the “dilution of cultural differences.”

    “Dysfunctional?” Compared to what? The same Western standards and modernity you detest? Ask yourself, do you want Italian culture to change or not?

  7. I believe all the comments are partly right. What I notice, however, is complicated. Americans who aren’t raised bilingual are rarely bilingual. When I was a child, in the 50s, lots of us were taught French. No longer. But more Americans are learning Spanish now. You would think Italians would be learning Romanian, for the same reasons, but I don’t see that happening. Being bilingual is an advantage, no matter what.
    I spent a few weeks on Crete, and was amazed by the degree of English proficiency there, so I am surprised that no Greek cities made it to the list. When I asked Cretans why they spoke English, and the Italians don’t, I was given some of the answers cited here: the Italian educational system is broken, everything is dubbed, the Italians are xenophobic and have their heads in the sand, etc. But, when I lived in Firenze in the 60s, it seemed that lots more Italians spoke English, even though, back then, French was still the lingua franca. Why is that?
    I do have to point out that Crete was hardly wall to wall big box stores. I doubt that learning English causes a culture to be overrun by American corporations. On the contrary: they will probably overrun Italy, and then Italians will be forced to learn English. If you could speak it in the first place, you might be better able to stop them at their own game.

  8. Have travelled to many small places in Europe and would say, the rarity of English being spoken outside the cities isn’t only applicable to Italy. For the most part, have found many of the small villages in Italy, have someone who speaks English. The reason I love the little villages in Italy, is it part of the charm of bumbling through with my limited Italian and their limited English, would much rather this, than the Amalfi Coast where English is heard everywhere.

  9. I think the only “issue” with Italians not commonly speaking English, is that there are many people who don’t commonly speak Italian. Italians are isolating themselves by not being bilingual and learning a “powerhouse” language. There are only 4 countries that speak Italian, 1 being Italy and 2 being inside Italy. Hard to be competitive on the global stage when you haven’t invested the time and resources into the skillsets needed to present and represent yourself and your country. – Aperilife

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.